My journey to becoming a rabbi, spiritual counselor and life-coach was anything but direct. In fact, growing up I would have been voted least likely to ever get there, or frankly to arrive at anything remotely spiritual. My life was literally as far from “spiritual” as you can get. It was all about the body, not the spirit. And although I would eventually find my way to Buddhism and meditation, Hinduism and yoga, Judaism and Kabbalah, for me the first of all the “isms” was “hedonism.” And I was the most devout hedonist you’d ever seen.
Hedonism, of course, is the focus upon the material world, the physical and the body as the end all be all. It isn’t that this is part of the focus, rather it is the entirety of one’s focus. That was certainly the case early in my life. And this pursuit peaked (or bottomed out as the case were) when I was in my late teens.
Bodybuilding, Steroids & Addiction
My dream at that time was definitely not to become a bible scholar but a body-builder. My temple was the gym and the only Bible I needed was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. I worked out day and night. I ate like a bodybuilder. I trained like a body builder. I did whatever I had to do to be a bodybuilder. Initially what began as a pursuit to transform a pudgy teenager body into a muscular man, eventually slipped into obsession and addiction.
That’s when I started using steroids.
First I would take pills. Eventually, when the effects began diminishing I started injections. As I moved closer toward my dreams of “perfecting” my body, I was losing my SELF in the pursuit of the perfect “self.” Like all hedonist ventures, it was a never ending, insatiable and destructive pursuit. Although I was growing leaner, I was also growing meaner and violent due to the drugs. I was getting into fist fights with the boys, treating the girls in my life like objects, alienating my family and totally neglecting my school work, and most anything and everything of true worth. Although I was growing in muscle mass, I was also growing more shallow, superficial and becoming a real jack ass.
Thankfully, one day, my mother caught me as I was in the act of popping the pills. After a family intervention and some therapy, I began the process of getting back on track, off the steroids and restoring a healthier relationship with my body and my “self”. I found myself to the healthier and more fulfilling “isms” and found my way back to my authentic self, my soul.
I’ve never shared this story publicly. It felt too shameful and superficial to share, particularly given my later spiritual awakening and professional choices. However, I no longer feel shame around it. Maybe it’s because I have enough distance from it, or perhaps it’s because I have come to feel gratitude for it, as well my other less than soulful detours along the way: underwear model, bouncer, bartender… Ahh, the good old days.
Now, however, I look back upon those body, image, materialistic pursuits as a tremendous learning opportunity, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to experience them. At a relatively young age I woke up to the emptiness, liabilities and destruction that can happen when we forget who we are, confuse our self for our body, and the devastation that eventually ensues when we neglect our soul.
As a spiritual guide and life coach, I see the consequences of this all the time. When we come to believe that we are our body, we are our appearance, we are the face staring back in the mirror, we always end up suffering. We begin placing too much, if not most of, our attention on these insatiable pursuits and spend our days futility chasing after an illusion. If we work more, if we eat less, if we become this, if we achieve that - our stock will rise and our self will be of greater worth.
But it never works that way. Never.
The money is never enough. The things are never enough. The pursuits are never enough. And gravity is going to win - every time. No matter how much Botox you pump into it, regardless of how many implants you shove in there, no matter how many nasty green smoothies you cram down your throat or how many Hot Yoga classes you squeeze in to the week, drooping, saggy, wrinkled and baggy is eventually going to prevail. Things fall down. Hair falls out (actually as Wayne Dyer says, hair doesn’t fall out so much as falls in and comes out other places you never would have expected). The flesh suit eventually falls apart.
If you live a life of body, then somewhere in your twenties your life peaks and it's all down hill from there. The first half of life is the ascent and the second half the descent - the descent into hell.
Worse than that, if we are our body, and our body falls apart, so does our worth. This is the curse of living an outward oriented, body focused, material driven life. The more you throw at it, the harder you work, the faster and deeper you sink. It was true for me, and it’s been true for the vast majority of people I’ve guided, counseled and buried over the years.
I’ve done so many funerals for physically stunning women who went to the grave feeling they were genuinely ugly or men who were insanely rich, but truly felt like failures as the money was never enough. If our worth is tied to our self and our self is defined by our body or material possessions or outward achievements and appearance, then we are doomed to living chronically feeling inept, inadequate and unworthy lives.
Thank God, however, our self, our authentic self, is not the flesh suit. As it has been said, we are not merely physical bodies, from time to time having a spiritual experience; rather, we are spiritual beings, here for a period of time, having a bodily experience. Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, "You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
This shift in focus, belief and action, from body to spirit, from self to soul, makes all the difference.
When we stop believing our self to be our body, and begin to understand that we are a soul, we set our self upon a worthy path. When our true self is our soul, and that soul is part of the Infinite, then who we are is literally of infinite worth. As we feel this worth our hunger for outward approval and validation disappears. The inner voices of ugliness fade. The feelings of futility dissipate.
And our whole life shifts.
The sagging and bagging and creaking are not only bearable, they become meaningful. These are opportunities to remember that we are more than the flesh suit. The true calling isn’t to discover a sense of worth by one’s looks, possessions or appearance out in the world. Rather, it is to go inwards and simply remember that we do not have a soul. We are a soul. That is who we are. That is why we are here. Our body may be worthless, but our soul is literally of infinite worth.